Hertha Berlin are enjoying life in the Bundesliga this year, currently sitting in third place in comfortably their best season in the top flight since 2008-09. To put that in perspective, last season Hertha finished 15th, one spot above the relegation play-off place, on goal difference, and only four years ago they were playing in the second division.
In some ways, Hertha are perhaps enjoying the German equivalent of Leicester City’s improbably fantastic season. From just surviving relegation to pushing for European football, Hertha’s turnaround in fortunes is almost as unlikely as that of the Foxes.
But can they keep it up? Whilst Leicester continue to be the only team seemingly interested in getting their hands on the Premier League trophy this year, Hertha do not have rivals that are similarly incompetent. It is almost certain that Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich will win their fourth straight title this year, and a rejuvenated Borussia Dortmund currently sit comfortably in second place. Hertha sit a full 16 points behind Dortmund, and will therefore spend the rest of the season battling it out for third place – and Champions’ League qualification – with the teams immediately below them.
With nine games remaining, as many as five teams could conceivably catch Hertha. Schalke sit one point behind the Old Lady, with Mainz just a point further back. Just six points separate Hertha in third and Leverkusen in eighth. Clearly Hertha have a job to do to maintain their European challenge, but so far they have seemed capable of doing just that.
Only Munich and Dortmund have lost less games than Hertha this season, and unsurprisingly they haven’t conceded all that many – just 26 in their 25 games, an encouraging statistic. Pál Dárdai, the relatively new Hungarian manager, has his team well drilled, and they work well as a team. While they are clearly a limited side, the players work to each other’s strengths, allowing for the over achievement that the fans have been enjoying this season.
As is suggested by their impressive defensive record, Hertha’s strong first half of the season was characterised by consistency. Hertha have developed an ability to beat the teams that they should be expected to beat, something that their rivals for third place seem not to have been able to do quite so consistently. If they can keep that record up, they will finish the season strongly, as their rivals have all dropped points in games that they would be expected to win.
They have also benefited from a lack of European football this season, allowing Hertha to focus solely on their Bundesliga pursuits whilst a number of the teams below them have been travelling. Having no European football is often seen as an advantage in England (Leicester, Liverpool etc.), and it could definitely play into Hertha’s hands here; two of the teams in pursuit of Hertha’s Champions’ League berth are still currently in Europe.
Hertha have also been enjoying some very good fortune this season. Typifying this, one game before Christmas against Hoffenheim finished 1-0 to Berlin, despite them not having a single shot on target. This is symptomatic of the fact that they struggle with scoring goals, having only netted 33 so far this year. Clearly whilst they continue to be a solid unit defensively that isn’t a problem, but fans would surely worry about their ability to get back into games in which they concede first.
Berlin also have the distraction of a German Cup semi final against Borussia Dortmund coming up. Until this season, Hertha have suffered under a hoodoo of not having gotten past the quarter-finals of the German Cup for a very long time. Their embarrassment was compounded by the fact that even their reserve team managed to reach the final of the tournament, losing to Leverkusen in 1992-93. Having comfortably seen off 1.FC Heidenheim in this year’s quarters and thus breaking their dismal run in the competition, perhaps Hertha’s concentration could be drawn away from the league. Moreover, as the final is held in their home ground in Berlin, Hertha have even more incentive to go for it and try to secure a spot in the final.
Having endured a very tough few years in the recent past, Hertha fans will be looking on with cautious optimism that this year could see the Old Lady rejoin Europe’s elite competition. For the first time since 1999-2000. If they can maintain the form that saw them enter the winter break in third, and can continue to enjoy a bit of luck here and there along the way, then they might well be welcoming European giants such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Leicester City to the Olympiastadion next season.
One word of warning though. The last time that Hertha Berlin qualified for a European competition, in 2008-09, they went on to be relegated to the 2.Bundesliga the following season. Perhaps Hertha fans should be careful what they wish for…